In a world (especially in American Christianity) where the church seems to be decreasing in influence, and where the percentage of people are identifying as Christians or church members, it seems as if an entire religious business enterprise, complete with high-dollar marketing and competition has arisen. And just as with any competitive market, massive resources are often targeted to “attract” bodies (customers, as some “churches” seem to view them), with full use of pragmatism (as discussed on a recent episode of the Lonely Pastors Podcast) to cater the facilities, activities, services, and even the messages and doctrine/theology they follow.
Flashy, light and music-driven “worship”, with professional musicians and full-time “worship staff” is a now common department of these churches. A plethora of ministries catering to every sub-demographic, life experience, age group, and interests are built. We’ve watched the overt efforts even in preaching, where pulpits have been replaced with a little stand and a stool, and the Bible replaced by video segments. But the most troubling of all, is the direct and unapologetic drift and even full-blown rejection of Scripture in favor of moralistic therapeutic deism. And an adulterated gospel that Paul called accursed (Galatians 1:8-9) A message, falsely-lableed as “gospel” that says “God made me this way”, and that what God made therefore cannot be considered sin. What the Bible calls sin, has been redefined and even encouraged as natural, normal, and even something to be promoted, all in the pragmatic effort to attract what are functionally – customers.
Another sadly common occurrence is the church (mostly smaller congregations), that mostly have no problem still calling sin, sin. Most of these churches consider themselves conservative and would be highly offended to be lumped in with those “modernistic” and pragmatic churches. But many of them are filled with people who have been practicing “Christians” for decades, with their names listed among maybe hundreds of other names on a church membership roll – a list that contains names of people who may very well haven’t even graced the door of the church building in years. And among those “faithful” remaining attendees- there is a startling condition: they have often sat for years under preachers who preach topics and agendas. Expository preaching is a foreign concept, and spiritual immaturity (1Corionthians 3:1-3). Sadly, this is just an older version of pragmatism that has flown under the radar for over a century, spawned by the “Second Great Awakening”, maybe more accurately known and the advent of revivalism – when numbers and emotional, decisional “salvation” became the common practice. When ministry success began being dramatically measured by “baptisms” over the fruit of repentance and genuine disciples.
I would never suggest that these folks are not really saved (though it can sometimes be difficult, as we are now generations in to the easy-believism (cheap grace), formulaic, say-this-prayer model. But there’s a reason the majority of churches (particularly smaller churches) have far more souls listed on a church roll than are actually even known in the church! Between those who fall under the example of 1 John 2:19 “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they were of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be manifested that they all are not of us“, a manifestation of their false conversion, to those who think so lowly of Christ’s church that they treat membership as little more than a private club meant to cater to their wishes and feelings.
These churches can be very loving – with a close-knit family atmosphere (a good thing!), yet tragically unwilling to actually grow in the knowledge of Christ, in efforts to intentional discipleship, and a hard resistance to any change, even those which are necessary. And sadly, when errors begin to slip in the door, the believers in the local body are often ill-equipped to address it from a biblical perspective.
And many of these small churches quietly envy the larger, pragmatic churches with large children and youth programs, while quietly blaming those same organizations for their own lack of growth.
But the answer is to refocus, not on numbers games, bank accounts, flashy shows, or even Bible translation debates – but on Christ and His Word. We must regroup around both the cross on which Jesus paid for our sins, but to the empty grave where He arose in victory over sin and death after taking the wrath we deserved. And we must seek to reform faithful churches around several foundational needs of what scripturally would be “healthy” churches:
- Regenerate Church Membership – The scripture is clear that the local church is made up of born-again, baptized believers who are “added to the church”. Regenerate church membership means, theoretically, that all members welcomed in to the church are filled by the Holy Spirit, and thus directed by the LORD Himself in the ministry and function of the local church. Any local church that is made up of born-again, Spirit-filled believers will find it difficult to be derailed or led astray, and is likely to call as their leaders – men who also are genuinely Spirit-filled and led believers.
- Christ-focused, Gospel-bathed, Expository Preaching – Expository preaching (John MacArthur’s philosophy of preaching is inextricably linked to his conviction that “The only logical response to inerrant Scripture . . . is to preach it expositionally. By expositionally, [he means] preaching in such a way that the meaning of the Bible passage is presented entirely and exactly as it was intended by God.” He defines expository preaching as “the proclamation of the truth of God as mediated through the preacher. *). This does not imply that preaching should never be topical and appropriate to the circumstances/context tow which it being delivered. But the foundational format should be down to the verse and context so that God’s message is rightly derived in it’s truth and context. This format is one of the greatest weapons against eisegesis– (injecting what we want into the text, thus bending the biblical text out of its context and meaning), as well as preventing widespread spiritual shallowness and immaturity.
- Biblically-qualified Pastors – no human being is perfect, but the LORD takes the qualifications of those men seriously (yes, Scripture is quite clear as to the MASCULINE gender of pastors/elders!) Sadly, more and more churches are willing, out of desperation or worry when a vacancy happens, are willing to call figures based on how good their preaching makes them feel, or maybe based on his past record of being numerically-“successful”, or truly sadly – to call the blatantly disqualified (divorced and remarried, drunks, unrepentant criminals, or even women!).
- Love and passion for the lost – which brings a heart for evangelism and the real Great Commission of making disciples (Intentional Discipleship). By the nature of the love of Christ in us, we should be passionately committed to seeking the lost with the gospel.
- Discipline- A healthy church, committed to Christ and His pattern and plan for His church, is willing to carry out loving discipline. This is not some contorted and bent pharisaical legalism where members become morality police constantly judging fellow members’ behavior. But a close community of believers who edify and encourage one another while helping to hold each accountable in their walk. Disciline is always to be engaged in from the same heart of reconciliation as Christ’s love that carried Him to the cross on our behalf.
- Biblical Worship – The LORD has made clear the kind of worship He desires. It isn’t about goats, bulls, and rams. What He does desire is our very hearts – so that we can truly worship Him in spirit and truth, with “holy hands”, and in humility and genuine thanksgiving. It isn’t about the style of music so much as it is about our spirit (our hearts before the LORD), and Truth (biblical, Christ-centered) adoration and praise. Worship and its elements should never be geared or catered to the feelings and preferences of man, but be biblically and theologically-accurate, while engaging the worshipper to active participation in corporate worship.
- Ordinances – The LORD implemented just two ordinances for His church, both given to the Church to be administered for the edification of believers, and as a testimony to the world of the Gospel. Biblical Baptism is the voluntary submitting of believers as a public profession of their faith and new identity in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, administered in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. and The Lord’s Supper – the ceremonial, symbolic, meal of bread and fruit of the vine, that was established by Jesus at the Last Supper as a memorial of the atoning sacrifice of His body and blood (Matthew 26:26-30).
- Engaging the Culture– Any church that is unwilling to speak the truth in its culture and context is functionally ashamed of the gospel.
While many look for “youth programs”, music programs, and a myriad of other personal desires, it behooves the believer and the local church to refocus on the “main things”, and most importantly on Christ and His Word, and to seek both personal spiritual maturity and personal holiness (sanctification) together in authentic relationship, united by the common faith, doctrine, and practice that is soundly based on Scripture. And it is through this kind of church that believers are best built up, and Christ is most glorified.